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Darwin Correspondence Project

4.36 Sem, Chistmas card

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An unattributed watercolour drawing of Darwin shows him dapperly dressed in a tail coat, but walking on all fours like an animal, his lean figure bent over in an arch and filling the space. It is inscribed ‘With Compliments of the Season’, indicating that it was a Christmas card design, and is in a sturdy cardboard mount with a gilt border. The back of the mount has a printed publication line, ‘Harding, 157, Piccadilly W’, a firm that published greetings cards along with booklets and stationery goods in the years around 1880. In 1875 the firm had been Thomas and Harding, suggesting that this design dates from the later 1870s or early 1880s. As a clue to the authorship of this drawing, it is evident that Frederick Sem, who drew the caricature of Darwin now in the Royal collection, designed humorous cards for Harding. One surviving example, probably later in date, is an anthropomorphic drawing of two toads smoking pipes, with Harding’s imprint (at this stage giving the firm’s address as 45 Piccadilly) and Sem’s familiar monogram signature. The characterisation of Darwin’s bearded head and spindly legs in the card design is particularly close to that in the Royal Collection’s drawing. Moreover, the handwriting of the greeting strongly resembles that of Sem’s caption on his caricature of Darwin and the inscriptions on his other drawings for the ‘Pantheon of Celebrities’.  

It seems remarkable that Darwin’s likeness was common currency to the extent that it could be used on a whimsical greetings card; but it is unclear whether this original drawing by Sem was a one-off commissioned by a particular person, or the model for a printed card. The absence of a handwritten message suggests the latter. Certainly, a philosopher morphing into a quadruped ancestor complements the many cats, dogs, birds and other animals performing human actions on Victorian greetings cards.  

A note on the back of the mount indicates that the drawing was acquired by the Darwin family ‘From E. Kersley’, an art dealer, in August 1939. 

  • physical location Darwin archive, Cambridge University Library 

  • accession or collection number DAR 225.179 

  • copyright holder Syndics of Cambridge University Library 

  • originator of image anonymous, but attributable to Frederick Sem 

  • date of creation unknown; probably late 1870s or c.1880-1 

  • computer-readable date c.1876-01-1 to 1881-12-31 

  • medium and material watercolour drawing in mount 


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